“What a day! What a day! I thought, ‘Come on baby, take it home! This one’s yours and you’re not going to lose it!’ High level sport is the most beautiful thing that exists, but triathlon has a special place in my heart.
These are the words of Dutchman Youri Keulen after his solitary victory in the world triathlon race – the 2019 ETU Indoor Triathlon European Cup in 2019 in Lievin, France.
In the B final.
There are reasons – some of which we’ll see – that could explain why Keulen’s short-lived career didn’t reach the heights he dreamed of. At least not yet. But even when he’s not on a post-race high, the enthusiasm is contagious, the candor refreshing.
“When I give interviews it comes straight from the heart…it’s just how I feel,” the 23-year-old said from his base in Girona, back from Clash Miami, where his performance and interview after-race events sparked interest in the wider tri community.
Wear your heart on your helmet for Ukraine
A decisive fourth place in a world-class field, mowing down the opposition with a second-best run of 55 minutes, 28 seconds for 10.5 miles, gave the Dutchman the right to be emotional, but this time his outpouring of line of arrival reaches far beyond sport.
“The last few weeks we know what has happened in the world,” he said, after finishing just 20 seconds behind third-placed Ben Kanute. “My coach is from Ukraine and fled to the Netherlands 35 years ago, but not his family. That’s why I have a heart on my helmet and on my bib. I wanted to do this for him because I have the capacity to do what I want and to be an athlete, but these people in Ukraine are fighting to survive.
Keulen was referring to racing with the yellow and blue colors of the embattled Eastern European country, and to his trusted mentor Kosta Poltavets, who plays a vital role in his coaching staff. It was an effort to make sense of the relative futility of triathlon in the context of conflict.
Thinking back on those comments, he now says, “I was looking at my Instagram last week, which I usually never do, and noticed that 2-3 weeks before the race I hadn’t posted anything. I felt there was something different in the world, and who cares if I do track sessions? I care, Kosta cares, and the people around me care. That’s it.
“We talked about my statement [after Clash Miami] and he said, “Yuri, it was really dark in the Netherlands, but it was still possible to get some sun back home because of your helmet and the things you said. I hope people who watched from Ukraine had the same feeling, and if so, I’m happy, and I did my job.
“But Kosta also told me, ‘If you think I’m sad, you’re not going to help me. If you think I’m strong, you help me. Race with your heart and then I know it’s for me and all the other guys, that’s helping. You made a statement and now it’s done. You’ve made a lot of people happy and that’s the best thing you athletes can do.
“It shows again how strong these people are. Last year I was racing in Ukraine. We ate every evening at the same restaurant and the whole team came to watch the race. I felt they really cared about each other and were united.
Build your dream team of coaches
If Coach Poltavets is steeped in knowledge of endurance sports, this also extends to the rest of Keulen’s trio of coaches and managers: Carlos Prieto, the longtime former coach of Javier Gomez, and the former Rabobank pro rider Kai Reus. They are at the heart of an overhaul that has seen Keulen strike out on his own after being with the Dutch triathlon federation for eight years. It’s the kind of decision that just isn’t made in Holland.
“According to Dutch principles, I’m doing the scariest thing possible,” he said, using a football analogy to explain the mentality. “For 50 years they have been playing the same football. At each tournament, the same formation: 4-3-3. It’s the Dutch school, yes, but look at the Norwegians… it’s silver ballthink about it differently!
With the national federation dedicated to the Olympics and exclusively focused on short-course racing, and with so little independent training, it should perhaps come as no surprise that there is only one Dutch triathlete. in the top 100 of the PTO ranking: Evert Scheltinga, ranked No. 100 at the time of this writing. Keulen plans to change that.
“I don’t really mind being the first or the last to walk long distances, as long as I can look back when I have kids and say, ‘Dad had the best time of his life!’ It’s not really appreciated by the federation — there’s no budget for long distance. It’s always Olympics, Olympics, Olympics, and then the federation smokes them and they’ll never come back into the sport. .
It’s clear there’s no love lost between Keulen and the setup he finally broke ties with in October – having first been recruited through his talent program thanks to a racing pedigree that l saw a three-time national 800m champion as a teenager.
“I had no swimming experience. Nothing,” he said. “The federation said I could learn to cycle, but didn’t know if they could teach me to swim. They said, “If you want to invest in swimming, we want to invest in you. Well, I did. I continued to invest and qualified for the 2016 Junior Worlds in Cozumel.
Yet while Keulen improved in the water, he rarely threatened a podium outside of home races. Something was wrong. “There was so much pressure. We were 15 athletes, and all 15 did the same program, based solely on endurance. In a race my body was never in a state to go through lactate and all the alarms went off. They completely mistrained me. Let me run the ITU now and I will have different results.
Under the watchful eye of Poltavets and Prieto, who helped Javier Gomez win a record-tying five world titles, training has been turned upside down and has given him confidence that he will pay dividends at all distances.
“Now I do intensity. There are still some basic miles, but with a lot of acceleration. It completely changed my lactate curve and my endurance capacity. My heart rate is now 15-20 beats lower at the same pace or watts.
Prieto organizes the training, while Poltavets, who has coached Dutch world champion speed skaters, monitors the data and provides information. Then there’s Reus, the 2003 junior road race world champion, who was first met as a roommate in Namibia.
“There was this 34-year-old cyclist who had seen it all, and I thought it was going to be a boring training camp. We connected. I told him that I wanted to leave the federation, but I didn’t know how. He said, ‘Yuri, I want to commit to you, and in two years things will be different.’ »
So what role does Reus play? “First of all, he’s my best friend. I talk about everything with him. He walks me through his experience, and he’s seen some nasty things. He was in a coma for 10 days with a brain injury after an accident and had to rebuild himself as a cyclist.
It is a support network that works in synergy. “If I want to change something in my formation, unless they all agree, we don’t change anything, and they always agree. The most important thing is that all these guys are fascinated by triathlon and trying to make me a better athlete.
The other part of the puzzle is to keep improving the swim, and for that it helps to have someone on deck. Becoming the latest professional triathlete to move to Girona, one of Keulen’s first excursions was to go to the public swimming pool to find a swimming coach. It was his introduction to Joan Gomilia. “I said, ‘Who’s the guy who can teach me to swim?!’ and was introduced to a 23-year-old sports science student who may not be the most experienced, but is so passionate. Clash Miami weekend, his dad turned 60, but he took the iPad to the restaurant so he could watch my race!
To go up
Another pillar is funding, made more pressing now that Keulen is deprived of federation support. Showing commendable maturity for a young athlete, it’s a project he’s been working on for a decade, and as part of Stichting Return (the Return Foundation), he’s part of a group of ambitious sports artists supported by a network of local businesses who have committed to investing in their talent until 2028.
After fourth place in Miami, it’s possible that appearance money and prize money can also be added to chests. Invitations from other race organizers have arrived, and another decent result should soon see Keulen in the top 50 of the PTO standings. Still, while races without drafting are attractive, Paris 2024 isn’t ruled out, even if it won’t be by chasing qualifying points all over the world.
“You can see from the last Olympics that guys who went everywhere to run couldn’t compete. I always want to run to the maximum of my potential. I have to run four to five World Cups, a few World Series, have a very good result, and I will be there. If I’m not there then it’s probably not for me.
If he does it at any distance, it is likely that the race leg will prove decisive. “I’ve always been super fast. I stayed at 800m and I was pretty good at 400m as well, and sprinting is still a weapon I have. When I go to the finish line, I’m the most confident sprinter of all. When I have 800m to go in a race, I say, ‘Come on Yuri, you’ve done this so many times.’ And if anyone can stay positive and give the finish drop a pep talk, it’s Youri Keulen.